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‘Where will an invasion of 50 bars leave those of us who have battled to survive?’

OPINION: Dublin Castle landlord HENRY CONLON says the bars who put Camden Town on the map need some recognition

03 June, 2019 — By Henry Conlon

Henry Conlon outside the Dublin Castle

JUST the other day, I was rushing along Camden High Street and managed to catch a glimpse of an individual who looked as though he’d benefit from a good night’s sleep.

Dishevelled and gaunt looking, he shuffled along the pavement. His shoulders were shrugged, his head was low and he seemed to be reading the cracks in the pavement. Just then, I recognised the fellow. It was merely my own reflection, staring back at me.

Day in and day out, you’ll spot us night workers scurrying back to their establishments to get the doors open to the public. Publicans, venue operators and bar managers, we are dedicated but exhausted.

Somehow managing to perfect the art of not looking as stressed as you actually are gradually comes with the job.  Unlike the shadow of myself, Camden’s bars are full of glamorous, charismatic, life-loving, story-telling and gossip-mongering individuals. Among them you’ll find the finest customers and staff in the UK. We help the gossip skip on its way through the streets of London.

I honestly believe the population of Camden is truly blessed to have such a plethora of establishments where we can share our con­versation and where the community are often delighted to see one another. Lost palaces of entertainment include KOKO, closed for full refurbishment, together with Camden High Street’s The Black Cap. I’m proud it was here in our borough. Please bring it back.

I know much of Camden longs for its prompt return. As the years have passed, we’ve all lost fond friends or family. Many were behind the counters of our hostelries, restaurants, cafés and bars. But these establishments still serve the community to this day, for weddings, birthdays, wakes and often charity events.

These small family businesses, including restaurants, often struggle to stay afloat to pay the bills and battle to keep the doors open to the public. To add to this burden we have many Victorian buildings in need of some tender loving care. No doubt you will hear on the national news how chains of restaurants and businesses are closing their doors due to economic uncertainty.

It’s an uphill struggle for sure.

We work the most unforgiving, demanding, unsociable hours. We face high regulation, scrutiny, training and sometimes council enforcement teams. This means that there’s a plethora of background paperwork and training before you can open the bar doors. The job is unforgiving, tiring, unrelenting and many of us wouldn’t recommend the profession to anyone else. As well as training to be a licensee, you’ll eventually receive permanent bags under your eyes.

As Chair of the Camden Inner London Licensees Association, I’ve convinced myself that many of the landlords and landladies, bar operators, bar staff and venue owners must be superhuman. They inspire me and keep me going. It’s an honour and a privilege to have represented them for so many years. They genuinely try so very hard to make Camden a safe and enjoyable place.

Very many of us try to introduce some live music to add to Camden’s vibrancy and musical notoriety. We still aim to be a provider of opportunity to unsigned bands and musicians. It’s why Camden is famous the world over and we believe it’s our duty to keep it that way.  We need to get these talented people out of their front-rooms and onto the stage. Often it’s for the very first time. Heartbreakingly it’s not that easy.


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But, as I was saying, there I was shuffling down the road, that man with deep furrows across his forehead and the world on his shoulders, I noticed on Hawley Road 50 blue posters, all headed “new licensed premises applications”.

They are for the new development at Hawley Wharf. Times have changed for everyone, and so have the needs of our customers, including residents. Some like to go out a little later in the evening. A more European style of late evening soiree seems to be the fashion, and people often work hours other than nine to five. Together, we all oil the cogs in this urban environment. So therefore, we’ve tried to adjust. Bar owners, venue operators and publicans have found we need to tweak our licences to meet demand.

Paul Weller, Peggy Conlon, the author’s mother, and Suggs at the pub in Parkway

Camden helps govern and strike a balance between resident concerns and the needs of business. However, for the last decade I’ve seen small, established and reputable businesses struggle to make changes, even if this is to open just 30 minutes later or to improve a facility.

Existing licensees have struggled with Camden Council’s “special policy area”, which usually allows no variation. It often prevents new premises opening.

It will be interesting then to see if the council will overlook this policy at the new development, as I’m certain that a detrimental effect will occur to surrounding established businesses who have battled to survive until now. How will residents feel? I don’t believe it’s possible to strike a balance between their concerns and 50 new licences that do not exist yet.

There needs to be a recognition of the loyalty of those restaurants and bars that have managed to continue, and have paid through the contribution of business rates, a late-night levy and the Business Improvement District.

I believe the council has a duty of care to those existing businesses and residents who may be affected. Leave the apple cart alone. I doubt there’s any more room for 50 more licensees to be shuffling along the streets of Camden.

Henry Conlon is landlord of the Dublin Castle and chairman of Camden Inner London Licensing Association.

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